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Colby cheese supporters testify in Madison

Colby cheese supporters testify in Madison Colby cheese supporters testify in Madison

By Kevin O’Brien

Colby cheese does not appear to have any serious rivals when it comes to being named Wisconsin’s official cheese.

Limburger lobbyists and Swiss supporters were nowhere to be found during a hearing held last week before the Assembly Committee on Agriculture, which is considering a bill that would add Colby cheese to the Wisconsin Blue Book as the “state cheese.”

Testimony in favor of the bill came from a pair of lawmakers — Rep. Bob Kulp of Stratford and Sen. Kathy Bernier of Chippewa Falls, who cosponsored the legislation — along with a few citizens who wanted to see recognition for Wisconsin’s only original cheese.

One of those who submitted testimony was Michael Luckey, the great-greatgreat- grandson of Joseph Steinwand, the man credited with inventing the process for creating Colby cheese in 1885. He read words written by his mother, Ann: “I take pride in my family’s history, but I know this is not just about my family,” she wrote. “It’s not even just about the cheese. It’s about the recognition of a hardworking farmer, a Wisconsinite through and through, who created a good product and it has since become a national symbol of good food — something we can all take pride in.” Ann’s mother, Betty, was Steinwand’s oldest granddaughter, and she just recently passed away at the age of 99. A native of Colby, Betty always looked forward to getting cheese from her hometown and did a lot to preserve the family’s place in the history of Wisconsin’s dairy industry, Ann said.

“Simply put, ‘America’s Dairyland’ would not be ‘America’s Dairyland’ as we know it were it not for Joseph Steinwand and his Colby Cheese,” she wrote.

The origins of Assembly 572 were explained by John Kinville, a teacher at Chippewa Falls High School, who gets his students involved in the legislative process through a “Letter to a Lawmaker” activity. One of those students, Beau Sweitzer, proposed the Colby cheese designation, and the idea was picked up by Bernier, Kulp and others.

Kinville said declaring Colby as Wisconsin’s “state cheese” should not be controversial, given its near-universal popularity.

“From Superior to Beloit, Hudson to Green Bay, or even Republican and Democrat, Colby unites us all,” Kinville said. “Colby’s mildness offends no one while its tastiness leaves no one behind.”

Sweitzer himself presented lawmakers with a multi-faceted argument, citing the fact that 21 percent of the world’s Colby cheese is made by 36 different companies in Wisconsin. He also pointed out the nationwide recognition of Green Bay Packers’ fans as “cheeseheads.” According to a list of “Colby cheese facts” provided to lawmakers, the foam wedges worn at games most closely resemble Colby’s orange- yellow color and small holes.

Perhaps the more passionate testimony came from Colby native Matt Oehmichen, who traveled over 200 miles through treacherous weather just so he could speak to lawmakers about his hometown’s signature product. He told the committee that he was shocked to learn that Colby wasn’t already Wisconsin’s official cheese, since it’s the only one that originated in the state.

“All the cheeses we produce so well, and so much of, were someone else’s idea,” he said.

Oehmichen went on to detail the history of the namesake cheese, which was first produced just a mile north of his family’s farm at the Steinwands’ Colby Cheese Factory. The original building was torn down in 2015, but he said the spot is still “hallowed ground” for the Wisconsin dairy industry.

When one of the lawmakers asked about the possibility of recognizing the site officially, Oehmichen said that would be a good idea.

“It deserves to be more than just a concrete slab, that’s for certain,” he said.

Colby High School’s show choir was also set to appear before the committee and perform “Colby Cheese,” a song from their original production “Coming Home, Coming to Colby,” but their bus turned around due to the weather.

The song includes lines like “Colby, Colby cheese, no matter how you slice it, you’ll be pleased. You can cut it, you can curd it, you can even melt and slurp it.”

One thing missing from the Nov. 6 hearing was Colby cheese itself. Oehmichen said he thought about bringing samples for committee members to try, but he didn’t want to run afoul of ethics laws.

The legislators assured him that wouldn’t be a problem.

“I’ll make that happen,” he said. “I’ll get some cheese down here for you guys.”

Oehmichen’s full testimony can be read on page 3 of today’s edition. A video of it has also been posted to Facebook.

In speaking to one of Sen. Bernier’s staffers, Oehmichen learned that the next step for the bill is to go before the Committee on Government Operations, Technology and Consumer Protection, which will need to schedule another public hearing.

To provide momentum for the bill so it does not get forgotten, he is urging people to contact the committee chairman, Sen. Stroebel, by calling his office at 608266-7513 or sending messages of support to